After our long detour through the hilly southern reaches of Chiapas, we were eager to reach Palenque and its famed ruins. The ancient city of Palenque is situated high upon a hill, giving it a commanding view of the expansive flatlands of the Yucatan peninsula to the east (modern Palenque town sits in the valley at the foot of that hill and is swelteringly hot – the ancients got it right.) The ruins themselves were well spread out and covered everything from pyramids to the obligatory ball parks. And if you don’t know anything about these ball parks yet, let me tell you. Apparently the ancients used to play some kind of hipball where they tried to maneuver a rubber ball through a vertical ring. Whoever scores first, wins, and the losers get sacrificed. Pretty harsh if you ask me.
Alex decided that she wanted to celebrate her 25th birthday with a hot shower and a good meal, so after Salina Cruz we hopped on a bus headed for Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the capitol of Chiapas state. This would also help us avoid the dangerous winds that pummel the Isthmus of Tehuantepec (Mexico’s narrowest point) all through November and December. Our decision was affirmed by the fact that the route between the two cities was lined with hundreds of wind turbines – the first we’ve seen in Mexico. We were glad for the chance to avoid getting blown off the road and make some fast kilometers.
Unfortunately, when we got to Tuxtla Gutiérrez we quickly found out that we should skip town ASAP. Loud, dirty and thoroughly blah, there was really nothing that could make the city worthwile for us. So after just one night in town we packed up and got out of there in favor of the highly anticipated city of San Cristobal de las Casas. That day was pure grind, a steady climb of about 40 kilometers and over 6,000 feet. The most interesting bit came at the beginning, when we passed the toll booths that mark the start of the cuota. Rather than the policemen we usually see stationed there, the place was crowded with civilians wearing sunglasses and bandanas to hide their faces. They brandished sticks as makeshift blockades, carried paper signs with prices written on them, and held out tin cans to passing cars. Drivers deposited money into the tin cans and bypassed the bored-looking toll booth attendants completely.
After a less than inspiring stint in Oaxaca, the way out of town was somewhat of a relief. It has rarely felt better to be back on our Long Haul Truckers with the road rolling away beneath our wheels and a favorable tailwind at our backs. Our departure from Oaxaca signaled a marked change of pace: the colonial heartland of Mexico lay largely behind us, and the rural landscapes and steamy jungles of the coast awaited. The rolling hills and country views were so refreshing, in fact, that we kept on pedaling on until nightfall.
When the time came to look for a campsite, we found ourselves close to an enormous construction area where a new highway was in its early stages. This seemed rather inviting but it was still crawling with construction workers, so we hemmed and hawed for awhile before finally deciding to go ask someone if it was okay to set up camp. For some reason we always expect the worst from these requests, despite the fact that we are rarely met with a no. This time around, the man we asked acted like it was the most normal thing in the world for two dusty güeros on bikes to ask about camping at the construction site. Without further ado, he led us to a secluded spot and reminded us that the next day was Sunday, so there was no need to worry about workers coming in the morning. After setting up our tent, a night watchman named Fernando came over to introduce himself and reiterated that our night would be “muy tranquilo.”
In the interest of avoiding traffic-induced death, we made the easy decision to bypass Mexico City and instead reroute to nearby Puebla. This part of central Mexico is choked with highways and suburbs, and despite our efforts to avoid busy roads the way into Puebla was one of our more nerve wracking days on the bike, with heavy truck traffic and a conspicuously absent shoulder. At least the adrenaline rush helped us make good time and, unlike the road in, the city itself was a joyous surprise.
We began our stay with a beeline to the nearest bike shop, which turned out to be a slam dunk. Due to some jostling of the bikes at the border and really unfortunate rivet placement, Alex’s Brooks saddle had been causing persistent pain in the booty area ever since we entered Mexico. Four months later, we were still looking for a solution and Alex’s patience was wearing thin. As a portent of good things to come, we only had to consult two bike shops in Puebla before we finally found her a new saddle! The winning bike shop was a breath of fresh air in that it carried several brands of bike gear, whereas most Mexican bike shops have a relationship with a single manufacturer. The owner was incredibly helpful and spoke enough English that we could muddle through explanations of butt pain and seat rail length with minimal pantomiming. He insisted on taking a photo with us after we bought the saddle, and promised to help us with any other issues that came up free of charge.
Tom and I recently spent a week in Puebla, a colonial Mexican city that charmed us with outgoing people, Parisian-inspired architecture, a low key vibe, and above all – food. After growing accustomed to a fairly narrow spectrum of culinary choices, the sheer abundance and diversity of cheap street food in Puebla kept us eating…and eating…and eating. So much so that we began to draw skeptical looks from our CouchSurfing host Alma and fellow guest Markus. Before long, we were warmly christened “the crazy fucking cyclists” and met with a resigned shake of the head each time we scampered over to the next food stand to sample any novel nibbles on display.
Unsurprisingly, our bike adventure has served to unlock (or perhaps just encourage) our natural eating abilities. Had we stayed in Seattle, the prevalence of artisanal goat cheese and ironic cocktails would surely have continued to lure us towards the endemic legions of foodie aficionados. In Mexico on the other hand, one can’t help but embrace a sort of food egalitarianism. The sheer multitude of dishes that the beloved market grannies routinely concoct with corn, beans, and chiles alone stand as a testament to Mexico’s proud culinary history.
Like good cyclists, we are doing our best to support said market grannies by eating anything and everything we can. The pesos we save by camping and avoiding the big tourist attractions are inevitably spent on eating ourselves into a food coma at every opportunity. Accordingly, the following is an overview of our week in Puebla, as told by our stomachs. Enjoy!
Note from Alex: This post marks a big change of pace for us. Namely, the end of wedding season. In its brief six month lifespan, this little adventure of ours has been punctuated by not one, not two, but three weddings. We promise we’re not crazy. These celebrations of family and friends as close as family have sent us flying every which way across the globe – Germany, Seattle, and North Carolina – for little snippets of home, comfort food, and faces of the people we love. But now that the last of the weddings has passed (with undeniable flair, congratulations Heather and Adam!), we can honestly say that we have no idea when we’ll be back in our respective home countries. Which is both terrifying and thrilling. One might say… we plan to roll with it.
After an unanticipated week soaking in the many pleasures of Jalpan, we eventually had to say goodbye to Rodrigo and his hotel-to-be. The road was calling out for us again. The ride out of Jalpan could have been a real struggle, with 2000 meters of climbing to go in less tnan 50 kilometers. In other words, tears and pain for both of us. But Rodrigo came to our rescue again and agreed to drive us to the top of the mountain range, aptly named Puerta del Cielo, the gate to the sky. We said adios to the dogs and clambered into the truck, climbing into the fog-laden mountains as the temperature plummeted around us. Once we had reached the top, we bid farewell with hugs all around and began a steep, brake-squealing descent back back down into our good old friend, the desert.
After a few relaxing days in San Miguel de Allende, we parted ways with Arpi and Zita, with them heading south and us heading north. Due to a late start, some headwind, and a few painful ups and downs, we didn’t arrive at our destination until around sunset. The small town of San Diego de la Union was bustling with people in suits, which at first take was pretty odd. We then heard that the state governor was in town (hence the suits) and settled down on a bench to scope out what appeared to be free food being offered in the plaza. Free food! Unfortunately, before we could capitalize on the opportunity, three little kids swarmed us and started asking questions about our bikes, our trip, and my height. The middle kid, a four year old boy, kept standing at my feet with a huge grin on his face, emitting a high-pitched squeal, and running away as fast as he could screaming with laughter – only to circle back thirty seconds later to begin again. Alex asked the kids why they were so excited and after receiving an answer she erupted in laughter herself. Apparently the kids thought I was Santa Claus! Looks like the scruffy beard is finally paying off.
After the good people of Casa Ciclista thwarted our first attempt to leave Guadalajara, we made a successful second attempt…a mere nine days after we arrived. However, it was a bumpy departure. Our last night in Guadalajara had been spent out until four in the morning, dancing our hearts out to 80s music at a local house party. You can probably imagine how great Alex and I looked and felt the next morning, after just five hours of sleep. But we were ready to hit the road. Luckily, it was Sunday, which meant that getting out of the city was made somewhat easier by the Via Recreativa. We can say for certain that we had the most cumbersome bikes of anyone riding the Via, so we got plenty of stares (and the occasional thumbs up).
Our last morning in Tepic was something of a hassle. Instead of being fully prepared and ready go as we normally are, we still had a couple of things to take care of. Getting our roof laundry, returning the wrong medicine to the pharmacy, and simply packing our panniers. As a result we got on the road much later than anticipated. Good thing that the ride out of Tepic was beautiful and mostly fun. We had a nice breeze going while climbing up to almost 5000 feet of lush green mountains, and were pleasantly rewarded with 10 kilometers of downhill cruising at the end of the day before we got into the town of Jala.
True to form, our long stint in La Paz didn’t end quite as we expected. We had set up our lease at Casa Republica such that it would end exactly the day the ferry to mainland Mexico would leave. But when we went into the Baja Ferries office we found out that our intended ferry was already sold out, meaning we had to wait another three days before boarding the next available boat. That meant three additional nights in La Paz, but luckily we knew just where to go. We decided to end our stay in La Paz as we started it: at good ol’ Pension California.
Our last day in La Paz was somewhat reminiscent of our initial departure from Seattle. We hadn’t been on the bikes for a long time, our legs were getting squishy, and all of those panniers were looking bigger and heavier than we remembered. With butterflies in our stomachs, we checked out of Pension California and slowly made our way to the ferry terminal in Pichilingue. Given that this was the first time we had been back on the bikes for over a month, it wasn’t so bad. Then again, it was only 10 miles, so you can take that for what it’s worth.